Interacting with locals is perhaps one of the best things you can do when you’re on holiday in a different country. Not only do you get to see what ordinary life is really like behind the veil of tourism, but you also benefit from all the tips and tricks they let you in on! Myanmar has a famously friendly local population, always ready to help new visitors out. The Burmese are warm and hospitable, and you may find yourself in a position with very little to give back in return. So, make sure to be gracious and respectful! Here are a few things you should know about the culture and etiquette of Myanmar before you leave for your holiday.
Another cultural norm to keep in mind is the use of the right hand is preferred over the left. When you reach out to pass something on to someone or receive items from another, make sure you use your right hand. Using your left hand is seen as disrespectful. Similarly, try and eat with only one hand, preferably your right. If you’re a lefty, it’ll take some time and getting used to, but it’ll be worth it to win the favour of the person you’re interacting with!
Just like the use of the right hand, there are other forms of physical interaction you should remember. These informal rules are common throughout Asia, so you should have an easier time if you’re a veteran traveller.
Every time you sit down, be it at the pagoda or small local tea stalls, always make sure your feet are planted firmly on the ground. It is considered rude for your feet to point in the direction of religious statues, shrines or people older than you, strangers included. Even worse, make sure that your feet don’t accidentally touch any one, either – if you do happen to brush your feet against someone, make sure you apologize!
A majority of Myanmar’s population is Buddhist – most of the big pagodas you’ll visit in the country are fully functioning, and you’ll see many locals frequent the temples as pilgrimage sites. While they aren’t averse to sharing their religious spaces with tourists, it is important to observe basic religious etiquette.
As in most temples across south and far-east Asia, always leave your footwear outside the place of worship before you enter. You’ll see most visitors leave their shoes and slippers in clusters, stalls or racks right outside the temple complex. Make sure you follow suit! This is also a rule if you enter someone’s home – before the threshold, shoes off!
Further, make sure you enter portions of the pagoda complex which are open to visitors. This applies to both newer, bigger and well-kept temples, as well as older and more historical sites. Women should especially take care to note the parts of the pagoda they’re allowed to and barred from entering – when lost, just follow what the locals do!
Myanmar can get very warm and humid. If you’re not familiar with tropical climes, you will be tempted to dress as light as you can. However, when you pack for your holiday, it’s best to keep a few pointers about respectful dressing in mind.
Myanmar has just opened up its borders, and the local populace is still defined by its old and cherished customs and traditions. While they may not express it, strappy tops and mini shorts are a severe contrast to the traditional long skirts, kilts and vests of the Burmese. If you’ve been to Bali, you’ll know that wrapping a sarong is a must before entering temples. The same thing applies here! If your day consists of visiting pagodas, you should consider wearing a longyi or htamein over a pair of shorts. Usually made of cotton or a cotton mix, these are light and airy! Alternatively, a usual long wrap-around skirt covering the knees would work just fine!
Sleeve-less tops can easily be switched out for short-sleeved, breathable tees – covering your shoulders up is seen as respectful too, especially in religious places. You could afford to be a little lax when you’re exclusively exploring Myanmar’s outdoors, like the Inle Lake or when you’re hopping around Mandalay.
Although often done with harmless intention, touching another person’s head is a big no-no. Not only does it breach narrower notions of personal space, it is also considered rude in a manner similar to when you hit another with your foot. Further, you should best avoid overt displays of affection in public spaces.
Another pointer is to respect the privacy of locals when you meet them. It’s easy to treat your guide or the people you come across as exotic bearers of a new culture, but you must remember to respect their lives and their personal space too. Before you snap a few pictures of them, their homes or their trade, make sure you ask for their permission. While you might expect a standard ‘sure’ as a reply, you’ll be surprised by how many older folk will chuckle shyly and refuse.
With these five broad reminders, you should be well-equipped to begin interacting freely with the locals you come across, right from taxi drivers at the airport to asking for directions in pagodas and tourist sites! Don’t get too stressed out by it, though. At the end of the day, all of this comes down to showing respect for the culture and the people of the country you’re visiting, and being open to world views different from yours – which is, arguably, the biggest take-away from travelling the globe!